The future of farming is here

Tiny sensors that stick to crop leaves and transmit health data. Robot buggies that trundle up and down orchard rows. Hyperspectral scanners to assess tree health. Smartphone-operated virtual cattle fences. Gene manipulation to transform crops so they’re a different colour or last longer, or bear fruit in a more convenient way.

From the gently fading traditional idea of a dusty farmer wearing a slouch hat with maybe a blue heeler trotting along behind the ute, Australian agriculture has moved into the uber-tech world of lasers and data dumps, drone surveillance and DNA analysis.

CSIRO’s patented virtual fences — operated from smartphones or tablets — work with cattle that wear GPS-enabled collars that make a noise if a beast gets too close to the virtual fence. If the animal ignores the noise and keeps moving toward the fence, the collar delivers a single, mild, electric pulse (much less startling than the shock of an electric fence). The beasts soon learn to steer clear of the invisible fences.

A drone wards off pests at a strawberry farm.
A drone wards off pests at a strawberry farm.

In big cattle country, says James Pratley, an expert from Charles Sturt University, farmers now can fence off watering points and, at one end of the enclosure, install a bridge with an electronic set of scales and a sensor that can read the individual beasts’ ear tags. The cattle can go into the enclosure via the bridge but they can’t leave that way. So each time an animal goes to drink, its weight is recorded, and the farmers know whether the herd is gaining weight and how often the animals are going to the water.

Pratley says the management opportunities using this kind of technology are endless.

There’s even a capsule that can be inserted into cattle’s rumen, or first stomach, that will record the temperature of each beast and transmit data to inform farmers, for instance, when a particular animal is unwell.

“Increasingly, new-age farmers are collecting as much data as they can, and they’re using that in their everyday decision-making,” Pratley says. “They need the data now to decide whether to water, whether to harvest, whether to fertilise, or whatever. The biggest problem for them is internet capability. People don’t realise that agriculture is one of the major users of the internet.”

A 3D model of water flow on a property helps land managers manage every drop of water. Picture: CSIRO.
A 3D model of water flow on a property helps land managers manage every drop of water. Picture: CSIRO.

Meanwhile, robotics research is moving so fast it soon will solve Australia’s perennial agriculture labour shortage, he says.

“Down the track that will all be done by robots,” Pratley says. “It’s starting to happen now, and that will go on at an increasing rate over the next five to 10 years.”

In Britain, the experimental GummiArm robot moves like a human with limbs that can be adjusted to be soft-touch or stiff, depending on the fruit or vegetable to be harvested, and it has sensors that assess crops, such as cauliflower, to determine which particular plants to harvest and which to leave for further ripening.

Andrew Grant, co-founder of Adelaide-based agtech development company Availer, says there’s a lot of movement in agri­robotics, and this will have all sorts of occupational health and safety benefits by removing humans from the danger zone of pesticide spray drift and replacing them with machines, for instance.

“We’re looking at little robots, like little buggies the size of 10 shoeboxes, that will move along the rows with cameras on them, monitoring the trees,” he says.

A robotic harvester, picking fruit, developed at the University of Essex in Britain.
A robotic harvester, picking fruit, developed at the University of Essex in Britain.

“Hyperspectral lasers (that collect and process information from the entire electromagnetic spectrum, including gamma rays, X-rays, ultraviolet, infrared, micro­waves and radio waves) will look at the leaves, fruit and stem, and farmers will get data to say this tree has this kind of rot, or on this tree the leaves are looking dry, so there might be an irrigation issue. In five or 10 years, I can see these things working when we’re asleep.”

In other developments, Grant says individualised solutions are coming to agriculture, just as personalised medicine is becoming popular. “For example, there’s a group in Adelaide that does DNA analysis of soil,” he says, adding that it determines how best to treat the soil so it works best with certain types of produce.

And in the dairy field, Availer is working on a development called Dairy Explorer that will give dairy farmers a real-time quality read on the milk their cows are producing, by shooting a laser into the milk to get an indicative analysis of the fat, protein and somatic cell count which will then pop up on a farmer’s smartphone.

Elsewhere, scientists have used CRISPR gene editing to develop better, longer-lasting, more easily harvestable fruits and vegetables, such as Cape gooseberries (also known as ground cherries — small orange fruit with a papery outer leaf) that have been genetically altered to fruit in clumps rather than difficult-to-harvest single fruits, and with berries that don’t drop off early, eliminating the undesirable traits that have made them difficult to grow commercially.

Apple breeds, too, now can be gene-edited so they don’t brown after cutting, by inserting a gene that blocks the polyphenol oxidase enzyme gene responsible for browning.

Then there’s the whiz-bang new way of keeping an eye on potential fruit-fly infestations, one of the latest gifts from science to hardworking farmers.

Normally, humans have to check individually every fruit-fly trap, baited with pheromones or food, on a repetitive and labour-intensive round. But new traps from Australian tech start-up Rapid­AIM use low-powered smart sensors that recognise a fruit fly’s wing-beat pattern within the trap, discerning it from the wing beat of other insects caught in it. The sensors then send an alert to the “cloud” using a radio-modulated technique, and straight on to farmers via a linked mobile app.

In Israel, scientists are working on a tiny pollinator drone that can create enough breeze to blow the pollen of greenhouse plants around to get pollination going, and at the University of California, Berkeley researchers are perfecting a remotely operated pesticide robot that can assess the health of a grapevine and spray exactly the amount of pesticide needed in precisely the place it is needed.

‘Crop-dusting’ drones drop biodegradable sensors instead of pesticides. Source: Kaust
‘Crop-dusting’ drones drop biodegradable sensors instead of pesticides. Source: Kaust

Meanwhile, researchers in the US and Saudi Arabia have even come up with drones that can disperse 3D-printed biodegradable sensors, called PlantCopters, modelled on dandelion flowers and maple seeds, that can spiral through the air like tiny helicopters. These sensors then get attached to the leaves of crops, where they can keep track of plant health and growth and the surrounding microclimate. This data then can be transmitted by Bluetooth wireless technology. Still in its infancy, work on the PlantCopters has appeared in an electronics journal.

The brave, new world of farming is data-streaming as well as hay baling, robot programming as well as cattle branding, and using lasers, drones and hyperspectral scanning, as well as crutching and harvesting.

Technology already has taken a lot of the grunt out of agriculture, and this trend is set to accelerate in the years to come, helping farmers make the most of their land and “optimise” its productivity.

After all, says Grant, Australia has its own natural limits, and hi-tech solutions can help overcome many barriers to productivity. “We have no more land, no more rain; we have a finite ecosystem,” he says. “We need economic optimisation, efficiency optimisation, sustainability optimisation. We need to make it work for us.”